Traditional TV shows and feature films are the end products of millions of dollars and many months, even years, of development, not to mention market research and focus groups. By the time they’re released, their producers and studios have already drawn their conclusions about whether or not they’re going to work.
That’s not the case with online video, said BuzzFeed president of motion pictures Ze Frank today in a “fireside chat” with Katie Couric today at Vidcon 2015 in Anaheim, California. “Every single piece of content you see [on Buzzfeed] is part of a line of questioning,” he said, and the questions are always geared towards understanding people. “We’re sort of the anti-studio studio.”
The web behemoth created BuzzFeed Motion Pictures in 2014, and the division’s content gets 1 billion views monthly, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times. Frank said that calling the division “Buzzfeed Motion Pictures” was a “wink and a nod” to the traditional film industry, but also an attempt to reclaim the term. “The term ‘motion pictures’ has been appropriated to mean something very specific, but we’re now experiencing the greatest time in human history of media for images that move,” he says. That’s why the division chose as its logo an animated GIF of a corgi, a reference to Eadweard Muybridge’s “Horse in Motion,” which is widely considered to be the first motion picture. “Muybridge’s horse is actually an animated GIF,” Frank said.
But even with the kind of viewing numbers BuzzFeed generates, and even with all of the data that BuzzFeed collects, Frank says that most of his decisions are based his gut and his—and his staff’s—understanding of what makes people tick. “Our analysis is very rough hewn,” he said. “It’s not very scientific. We use data and ‘sciencey’ sort of things, but ultimately people are very savvy about why we do things, and don’t need a lot of data to make decisions.”
Frank credits most of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures’ success with the fact that he trusts his talent. “We lean into the diversity of our own staff and say ‘Make stuff around your own identity and identities that matter to you’,” he says. He tells his staff not to worry if it seems very niche, because there are likely a lot of people like you who are interested in what you are saying.
“A video called ‘Signs You Were Raised by Korean-American Parents’ shouldn’t be a hit, but it is,” he said.
When Couric asked Frank why he and BuzzFeed were now eyeing up more traditional forms of video, Frank turned the tables and asked why she left television for online. She said she craved the kind of flexibility and lack of structure that Frank (who she referred to as the “O.G. of online video”) has always had.
“I’d done everything in television news,” Couric said. “Now I can do a 20-minute documentary on the new Harper Lee novel, or 45-minute interviews with presidential candidates where I’m not just looking for a sound bite.”
Central to both Frank’s and Couric’s philosophies is the understanding that all media—no matter if it’s a big-budget Hollywood film or a six-second Vine—is about connecting with people on an emotional level.
“Media is deeply psychological,” Frank said. “When you go to a movie, you’re appropriating other people’s feelings and lives. We started to look at why people share media with each other. It became obvious they weren’t saying ‘I’m giving this to you to consume,” but “This media is part of the conversation I’m having with you.” People use media to say ‘This is who I am.’ I can also use media to say ‘I appreciate a part of you’.”